Opinionista Julie Reid 14 October 2012

Julia Gillard: feminist fantasy to political reality

It's not often that a Parliamentary address goes viral. In fact, I challenge you to recall any, besides the example from a few days ago, when Australian prime minister Julia Gillard delivered a scathing attack on sexism during a Parliamentary question and answer session. It had women the world over punching the air - and here's why.

It is not often that a Youtube video has you air-punching behind your desk, but when it happens it is usually for something cool like a music video of a beloved rock band, or a clip of an awesome sports move. Like a football goal, kicked into the net from a mile away. Last week, though, over a million people were watching an online video of, wait for it, a parliamentary speech, and judging by the social media reaction thereto were doing the victory-happy-dance in response. 

This had me asking: what was it about this video of a question and answer session in the Australian parliament that turned it into an instant online and social media hit? After being posted on Youtube for less than four days, the 15-minute video of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s speech had received 1, 318 870 hits. That is what social media savvy folk call ‘going viral’. The hashtag #Gillard did a good deal of trending on Twitter, the Australian and international media picked up on the issue, giving us all a blissful respite from the political theatrics of the American electoral countdown, and the speech hit the blogosphere stratosphere. 

I am not ashamed to admit that I am really clueless about Australian politics and I do not know all that much about Julia Gillard. Keeping up with the political soap operas of South Africa, Zimbabwe, the UK and the USA leave me with little more political-intellectual space to explore much of the governmental goingings-ons in many other countries. I estimate that most South Africans would not be able to name the Australian prime minister, let alone tell you that the post is held by a woman. When reading some of the online commentary and responses to the Gillard video it is clear that she’s not universally popular in Australia and has had her fair share of political failings. But when watching the video of what has been called her ‘smackdown speech’, it did not matter that I did not have a clear understanding of Gillard’s politics: what mattered to me, the Australian-political-ignorant, was what she accomplished in those 15 minutes only. And it was staggering. 

The video contains Gillard’s response to a motion proposed by the leader of the opposition party Tony Abbott. Abbott had just demanded the immediate dismissal of parliamentary speaker Peter Slipper due to a series of text messages sent by Slipper which contained reportedly derogatory remarks about female genitalia. Gillard, unleashing an extraordinary degree of fury, tore into Abbott with a series on insults centred on the leader of the opposition’s hypocrisy. “I will not, and the government will not, be lectured about sexism and misogyny by [Abbott] not now, not ever… If he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror,” she said. Gillard impressively backed this up by then delivering a series of quotations, spoken by Abbott in past years, which unflatteringly indicated an embarrassing degree of sexism on Abbott’s part. 

The quotations, read by Gillard, included Abbott having stated that for women struggling to come to terms with pregnancy “abortion is the easy way out”, he referred to Australian women as beings preoccupied with “doing the ironing”, and also said “If it’s true … that men have more power generally speaking than women, is that a bad thing?” and, “But what if men by philosophy or temperament are more adapted to exercise authority or to issue command?”. After establishing beyond any doubt that there exists sufficient historical evidence to label Abbott a sexist and a misogynist, Gillard made it very clear that this was not something that she would tolerate. 

It was a powerful speech, to be sure. But what makes it extraordinary is it who delivered it, and I don’t mean Gillard. This speech will certainly be a defining moment for Gillard. But the speech is important because it was belted out by a female politician, who is also the leader of her government, on a political stage, and made available to an international audience. Gillard took a massive risk in doing this, because from now on she will never be able to pretend that she is not a feminist (If she did, she would be accused of hypocrisy). At first glance, that does not sound so bad. But uttering the words, whether directly or by insinuation, “I am a feminist” is something which a great many women in professional or political contexts will go to great lengths to avoid. 

Part of the problem is that few women wish to be branded a ‘feminist’ in a professional context, including politicians. Stereotypes can be nasty little things, and the predominant stereotype of the feminist is no exception. You know the picture: a feminist is a woman with a serious ‘chip-on-her-shoulder’, an unflattering, unreasonable and stubborn grudge against men, and an overtly arrogant attitude. Extreme visualisations of the stereotyped feminist include women who wear dowdy clothes, do not shave their legs and burn their bras in their harebrained protests. To highlight the silliness of these codifications of feminists I can tell you that I’ve got a fundamental personal concern for gender equality and women’s rights, but I’ll need a great deal of convincing before I set my bra alight. Do you have any idea what a good bra costs these days? That would just be a waste of money. Seriously, though, negative stereotyping, but more so the effort to avoid being victim to it, result in many women (and men) being publically coy about their personal dislike for gender inequality, sexism and misogyny. This is a great pity. 

Where stereotypes are the footsoldiers of ideologies, the negative stereotypes of feminists are the workhorses of patriarchy. The knock-on effect of these stereotypes is that they close down the space for debate about patriarchy and misogyny which would otherwise expose it more widely. Professionally powerful women will go to great lengths to avoid the attachment of the label ‘feminist’ to their persona, but in doing so consciously avoid speaking openly, frankly and publically about their disdain for the denigration of women by men. 

The UK online news website for The Guardian, described Gillard’s speech by saying, “[i]t was the first time an Australian leader – and possibly any world leader – had delivered such a forthright attack on misogyny in public life”. The result of the rarity of this kind of political openness on the matter, is that the space made for national and global public debates on the topic are much smaller than they could be because fewer people who could be doing the talking are willing to do so. Such discussions and positions are then usually led by small groups of civil society gender activists, and although they form an important part of the debate, they are often not meaningfully engaged with by, well, anyone. Try as they might to change things, the activists cannot do so if they have this conversation alone. 

A few years ago I was teaching a course on feminist history to some second year university students. One day the students questioned me on the relevance of feminism in modern society. The female students agreed, saying that although they were women they did not feel that they had fewer opportunities than their male classmates. “Has feminism not already accomplished what it set out to do?”, they asked. I replied with something like this: you live in a country where a woman is two-and-a-half times more likely to contract HIV/Aids than a man, not only because of our high rape rate but because in our society many women do not have the social power to say ‘no’ to sex, let alone insisting on the use of a condom. 

Whether you like the reality of it or not, sometimes it seems safer to agree to sex, than refusing, and being raped anyway. A woman born in South Africa has got a greater chance of being raped than learning to read. Studies tell us that 28 – 30% of adolescent women in South Africa will tell you that their first sexual experience was one of rape or molestation, and 50% of South African women will be raped in their lifetimes. A woman is raped in South Africa every 17 seconds. In the industry with which I concern myself most, the media industry, less than 4% of top management positions are occupied by women. Statistics reveal that globally, and including in South Africa, men will almost always earn more than women for doing the same jobs. 

And let us not even get into the gender-based abuse that happens on the rest of our continent, including the selling of little girls into slavery, rape as a mechanism of war, female circumcision (a reprehensible cultural practice but often performed under brutal circumstances), or girls as young as twelve developing fistulas for having been married off too young. So, I asked the students, do you still think feminism has accomplished what it set out to do? The female students exited the lecture hall looking as if they had been struck by a mental sledge-hammer, some of them glowering angrily at their hapless male classmates. 

In the same week that Julia Gillard performed her blistering attack, not only on Tony Abbott but on sexism and misogyny in general, the ANC Women’s League in Mpumalanga reportedly stated that the ANC was not ready for a female president. In a half-hearted response to the criticisms received in the press after that comment, Troy Martens (ANCWL spokesperson) released a statement that tried to clarify that the reason the ANCWL does not want a female president now, is because it wishes to rather pander to attempts at ensuring party unity. As far as excuses go, that simply is not good enough: anyone who believes that the ANC is still unified or can be salvaged as a unified party is delusional. In a column which attacks the ANCWL’s position Thenjiwe Mtintso says, “The ANC is a patriarchal organisation, particularly because patriarchy, the amoeba and lizard it is, adapts to any system or organ, taking its form, shape, and colours”. Indeed. 

The Gillard ‘smackdown video’ became so instantly popular because it makes the feminist dream a reality. Part of the social psychology of filmic media consumption is that the movies do for us in Hollywood fantasy what we desire to see in the world, but which can never happen in reality. So we get our fix in films, and there we live out our dreams. We partake in space travel (Ja right!), we klap each other with light-sabres or karate shops (not allowed at the office) and we punish the baddies with violent deaths (none of them are put on trial in a court of law). The movies gave the feminists characters like Lara Croft (Tomb Rader), Trinity (The Matrix), Alice (Resident Evil) or Elizabeth Swan (Pirates) to do to men what cannot and will not be done in reality. 

Then came Julia Gillard and she did it. For real. That is what makes her ‘smackdown’ so unique. DM

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